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Are Atheists the New Campus Crusaders?

Celebrating "Blasphemy Day" and "Darwin Day," members of the Illini Secular Student Alliance create the kind of community once reserved for religious groups.
 
 
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The following is reprinted with permission from  Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

This month at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a select group of students will show their humanitarian spirit by participating in the Bleedin’ Heathens Blood Drive. On February 12, they will eat cake to celebrate Darwin Day, and earlier this year, they performed “de-baptism” ceremonies to celebrate  Blasphemy Day, attended a War on Christmas Party, and set up Hug An Atheist and Ask An Atheist booths in the campus quad.

These activities and more are organized by the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA), one of 394 student groups that are affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance (SSA). “We brand ourselves as a safe place and community for students who are not religious,” says Derek Miller, a junior at Illini and president of the ISSA.

Secular groups on college campuses are proliferating. The Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, which a  USA Today writer once called a “Godless Campus Crusade for Christ,” incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001. By 2007, 80 campus groups had affiliated with them, 100 by 2008, 174 by 2009, and today there are 394 SSA student groups on campuses across the country. “We have been seeing rapid growth in the past couple of years, and it shows no sign of slowing down,” says Jesse Galef, communications director at SSA. “It used to be that we would go to campuses and encourage students to pass out flyers. Now, the students are coming to us almost faster than we can keep up with.”

The Secular Student Alliance provides its affiliate groups with support and materials, including banners, pins, and informational materials with titles like What Is An Atheist?, a brochure with cheerful graphics and information about the identities of secularists, including “non-theist,” “freethinker,” and “humanist.”

Oddly enough, in the geography of on-campus student groups, atheist organizations fit within the category of faith-based groups like the Campus Crusade For Christ, which recently (and controversially)  changed its name to Cru. At Stanford University, the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) register with the Office For Religious Life, just like Cru, and are a member of Stanford Associated Religions.

“There are a lot of parallels with religious groups on campus,” says Ron Sanders, Cru’s missional team leader at Stanford.

“They have weekly meetings similar to ours, and give one another support, and they do social justice projects on campus and in the communities... I don’t know that they aren’t a faith group. They don’t have a faith in God, or in revelation or something like that, but they have faith in reason and in science, as I understand it, as a guide for human flourishing.”

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that groups like Cru are our cultural opponents,” says Galef at SSA. “It comes down to which values we’re promoting. We are promoting values of critical thinking and acceptance.”

Conflicting values on campus have led to unsavory events. Last year at Salisbury University in Maryland, the Atheist Society took offense when Cru students chalked a verse from the Bible: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is not one who does good.” This led to a  chalking counter-offensive, which escalated but ended peacefully. In 2010, secular student groups at the University of Illinois and other Midwestern schools drew controversy when they chalked images of Muhammad. After the fallout, this event led to interfaith conversations, followed by friendship and cooperation with the Muslim Student Association. They have since hosted events together and convened for pizza and board games.

 
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